Evolution of a Nonprofit, Parts 1 and 2

By Margaret Henderson
Chapel Hill, NC (Fall 2004)- The leadership at nonprofits can be categorized two ways: leader-dominated and community-based. The author argues that only the latter is effective and efficient, because no single person or funding source drives an organization or controls information flow through it. While both methods can be seen at various non-profits, a leader-dominated organization is far from the most effective and efficient way to run an organization. Part 1 of this article provides a guide for the staff and board members of nonprofit organizations to assess whether they are shifting or want to shift from being a leader-dominated organization to being a community-based organization. Part 2 suggests a process that nonprofits might use to evaluate whether they have the interest and the capacity to shift from being a leader-dominated organization to being a community-based organization.


Part 1- Characteristics and Indicators
In a leader-dominated organization, the organization depends on one person (often the executive director) to handle most responsibilities. The director often serves as an officer on the board of directors, and will drive the board’s agenda without opposition. Additionally, in a leader-dominated organization, the staff retains critical information in their heads, and jobs are created for particular people, chosen by the leader. The leader will not explain staff transitions, and varies the hiring process according to different circumstances. This job structure can lead to an informal hierarchy based on personalities and with one-way communication. As a whole, the organization depends on a few funding sources which are often one-time grants from outside the community. The organization will only participate in larger community activities when there is an obvious need to do so, and will not share information unless there is a clear benefit in doing so.
On the other hand, a community-based organization relies on an interconnected system of people with different responsibilities. Hiring practices are objective, thorough, and standardized, inviting participation from staff, volunteers, and members of the community. Communication is multidirectional and is respecting, but not limited to hierarchy. The leader in this type of organization relies on board members to drive the agenda and serves as staff support to the board. The organization is focused on ensuring that services contribute to the good of the community and jobs are designed to help the organization meet the expressed needs of the community.
Part 2- Helping Nonprofit Shift to a Community-Based Organization
Why make the shift?
Shifting from a leader-dominated organization to one that is community-based should not be taken lightly, as there are implications for staff, volunteers, and the community. Community-based organization put more time into communications- especially listening- and must trust one another more. Initially, this can be stressful. There are also personal challenges to confront when making the shift, such as feeling that the organization’s future is unknown. Logistical barriers do exist in making this shift. For example, the organization might not have enough administrative support, or their salaries may not be adequate to attract the level of professionalism they want in their staff. Additionally, there are psychological barriers, such as resistance to giving up control or an inhibition for change due to loyalty to the previous primary leader.
However, after successfully making the shift, the organization will experience greater stability, will diversify leadership and revenue sources, and will ensure long-term success. The shift can be exciting, as fulfilling promises to clients and supporters will be satisfying and playing a role in making a positive change for the organization will be exciting. In order to successfully make the shift, tools, training session or practices, such as staff training in record keeping may need to be put in place.
After successfully shifting from a leader-dominated organization to a community-based one, the differences will be clear. Some differences include that the organization will no longer depend on any one person for its survival, the expectations and responsibilities of every staff and volunteer position will be defined in writing, and the executive committee will take lead in setting board agendas.
Related Resources:
Evolution of a Nonprofit, Part 1
Evolution of a Nonprofit, Part 2